M/S Molganger sunk by U-404 Bülow S of Nantucket, 9 men on rafts survive 48 days towards Azores

Moldanger under way. Source: From Bjørn Milde’s postcard collection. http://warsailors.com/singleships/moldanger.html
            The Norwegian cargo motor ship Moldanger was completed in March 1933 by the Netherlands’ Shipbuilding Company, NV of Amsterdam. Her owners were A/S Westfal-Larsen & Co. of Bergen, Norway, to which the ship was home-ported. She was 6,827 gross tons and a single-deck vessel, 496 feet long, 61.4 feet wide and 31.3 feet deep. Her 8,200 indicated-horsepower oil-fired engine’s single screw propelled the Moldanger at an impressive 15.5 knots when built, which by 1942 was 14.5 knots.
From March, 1940 the ship ran dedicated runs hauling cargo from South American ports in the South Atlantic to US east coast ports, from Norfolk to New York. Then in 1941 she included South American ports in the Caribbean, then transited Panama for US ports in the Pacific northwest as well as Vancouver, Canada. She left San Francisco for the last time in mid-April 1942 for Valparaiso Chile, transited the Straits of Magellan, calling at Punta Arenas, Chile, and arrived in Buenos Aires on the 16th of May, to load for New York (warsailors.com). Like nearly a thousand other merchant ships, Moldanger was being operated by Notraship, the Norwegian Trade and Shipping company based in New York.
            By the time of its final voyage in June the ship was armed with a 4-inch gun located on the stern as well as a pair of .303-caliber machine guns which were positioned either side of the bridge. Two Norwegian gunners manned these weapons. There was also degaussing equipment intended to utilize electricity to neutralize the threat of mines and torpedoes. The ship’s captain at the time was Frode Bjørn Hansen of Bergen, Hardoland, Norway. There was a total of 44 men aboard Moldanger, and all of them except for two (Saloon Boy Holger Aronsen of Sweden, 16-year-old Mess Boy Andrew Ian McLellan, and Radio Operator Charles Steward of Canada) were from either Norway or Denmark (there were three Danes aboard).
            For three weeks up to 8th June 1942 Moldanger and her crew loaded a diverse cargo weighing 8,700 tons in Buenos Aires. It included barrels of tallow (reduced cow fat), vegetable oil, sheep’s wool, and salted hides destined for the markets of New York. Around the day before the ship sailed – the 7th of June 1942 – Captain Hansen asked his 39-year-old Bergen-born Chief Officer if he would like to telephone his wife and daughter in Norway. Ivar Bøe replied that he could never afford the $25 required for a three-minute phone conversation. Hansen generously proposed that if the Mate put in some extra hours on painting projects, the cost would be covered. So Bøe was able to speak with both of them, and as chance would have it, this was to be the last time they would hear his voice. (Later on, Captain Hansen and his interrogators were left wondering whether German intelligence agents had acted on information provided in that call regarding the ship’s movements).

Moldanger sailed up the South Atlantic and into northern waters per instructions provided by a British routing officer representing the Royal Navy in Argentina. Since crossing the latitude of 10 degrees south Captain Hansen had been zig zagging to throw off attackers, though it is not known whether the degaussing equipment was turned on. For 19 days nothing too unusual occurred, and the vessel found itself less than 24 hours out from its final destination.

At 6:30 PM (ship’s, or local time) on Saturday, the 27th of June Moldanger found herself 320 nautical miles from Ambrose Light, New York Harbor, with Nantucket laying 280 miles to the north, Cape Hatteras 315 to the west and Cape May, New Jersey 305 miles to the northwest. The ship was squarely in the path of the mighty Gulf Stream, an in-ocean river which carries its contents at three to five knots northeast in a warm Caribbean current. The ocean was nearly 10,000 feet deep. Captain Hansen described the weather as fair, with a smooth sea and what wind there was from the southwest, or across the port bow. Visibility was good. Course was 310 True.

Unbeknownst to the predominantly Norwegian sailors until the last few seconds, when a torpedo was sighted by the lookout in the crow’s nest steaking towards them from 200 yards, the German submarine U-404 under Kapitänleutnant Otto von Bülow had been stalking them. The U-boat had been trying to keep up with the fast-moving ship for almost six hours, and finally struck at 6:57 PM local time. There were four lookouts posted: one perched in a crow’s nest attached to a mast high overhead, a man posted at the four-inch gun aft, and two deck officers on the bridge. The Norwegian ensign was not flying at the time, and no submarine was sighted.

At 4:53 PM German time (about 6 hours ahead of local time), the lookouts on U-404 first sighted Moldanger. At 5:20 PM von Bülow described it as a modern freighter with two large masts fore and aft, as well as two smaller ones, steering 325 degrees northwest at 14 knots and zig zagging. He kept tracking the ship’s course changes, at 7:20, 8, and 9:22 PM. By 10:20 PM he was ready and “dove to attack,” suggesting that the U-boat had been surfaced when making its initial survey of the battle scene.

At 10:57 PM U-404 fired a torpedo from Tube V, depth 3 meters, speed 40 knots. After a run of 37 seconds he observed a hit at the center of the ship, sending water as high as the funnels, but with a detonation which was barely audible. The steamer stopped, but no boats were observed in the water yet. As the ship did not appear to be sinking deeper, von Bülow decided to send a second torpedo into her, before waiting for the men to get clear in the boats.

As the Germans had anticipated, the torpedo struck about 10 feet below the water line amidships on the port side. It killed the second engineer (Ramsli) and a motorman (Tollefsen) and knocked out the engines. Aboard the ship there were frenetic efforts to gather life jackets, survival suits and gear and safely and quickly launch the lifeboats and rafts and get clear of the ship. Since the first torpedo had disabled the antennae, the Canadian radio operator, Charles Steward, was unable to send a distress signal, meaning that von Bülow did not learn the name of his quarry and would later feel compelled to interact with survivors to find it out. Captain Hansen threw the Royal Navy code books overboard in weighted bags.

Since the torpedo struck to port, there was an emphasis on getting the boats and rafts on the starboard side free immediately, as they were undamaged and were unlikely to be hit right away. Unfortunately, due to Moldanger’s high speed (14.5 knots) when hit, the ship’s forward momentum swamped the motor boat as it was lowered, immersing and putting its engine out of action for good. However the men managed to salvage the motor boat, bail it out, and collect other survivors in it. Fortunately the small “gig,” designed for running errands and repairs in harbor but fitted out by Captain Hansen in Buenos Aires as an emergency survival craft capable of fitting six men, was undamaged and occupied, as were three rafts, all of which were manned by survivors.

Back on the ship, although there was no evidence of panic, the launching of boats did not go as planned. A 22-year-old motorman named Einar Moldekleiv and seven other sailors were lowering a starboard lifeboat when the lines holding one end snagged and the other line ran free, causing the boat to dangle from one end, and spilling two men into the ocean (they clambered back aboard using nets strung for that purpose). When the boat was finally launched the Moldanger made a sudden course change, with the result that the lifeboat was pulled under the stern of the ship and pressed into the water, where it flooded.

Because of these failures to secure escape from the side considered “safe,” seven men were forced to run to the port side in order to enter a lifeboat there. However they just as U-404 impatiently sent a second torpedo into that side of the ship, aft, near the Number 5 hatch, killing the group of seven new arrivals as well four others who were working furiously to free the lifeboat at the time, for a total of 11, including Chief Officer Bøe, who had called his family for the last time a few weeks before (warsailors.com).

According to Hansen, “the whole stern …seemed to be blown off with the striking of the second torpedo.” He added that she flooded right away, and thus there were no fires aboard. The men who survived the carnage of the second torpedo suffered from numerous wounds, from broken legs and ribs, fractured jaws which prevented them from chewing for weeks, concussions, headaches, and a dislocated shoulder from being banged around by the force of impact, sea water, cargo like bales of wool, and numerous lines and wires associated with the chaos of a large sinking ship. The ship’s stern was “practically demolished” by the second explosion, and sank within three minutes afterwards.

At 11:02 PM, a mere five minutes after his first attack, von Bülow fired a second missile from Tube III. This time he recorded a hit aft of the Moldanger after a run time of 27.5 seconds, and an explosion which sent “iron wheels whirling through the air” and caused the ship’s cannon to tilt at odd angles. At 11:30 PM he noted that “steamer sinks quickly by the stern.” After that he notes “From life boats I learn she is the Moldanger, home port Oslo.” The Norwegians gathered from their interactions with von Bülow that he was interested in the fate of another Norwegian ship named Molda which had been in Buenos Aires at the same time as them. This lead the Norwegians to believe that U-404’s men were acting on prior intelligence as to their movements and those of the Molda.

Since Captain Hansen was perched alone on a raft in the distance, the German commander interviewed Boatswain Harry Monsen, who only spoke broken English, instead. The survivors recorded that von Bülow said “he was sorry,” and “asked if the boys could pick him up,” as Captain Hansen was on a raft by himself, together with a man who could be seen in the water hanging on to a smoke float. The Norwegians told von Bülow that they would take care of their own, at which point “the commander saluted, in the old formal way, …and retired into the conning-tower. Shortly after this the submarine submerged and was not seen again.” There were four Germans and a machine gun seen on the oval conning tower. Whilst maneuvering amongst the men and wreckage U-404’s engines were started and stopped a number of times, emitting a rumbling noise and smoky exhaust. This caused the Norwegian witnesses to believe she was an older submarine (in fact U-404 had been launched on 4 June, 1941 – a year earlier.)

The Norwegians described the commander, who hailed from an aristocratic family in Schleswig-Holstein, as a “short, dark complected [sic] individual with black pointed beard, wearing dark jacket, dark shorts and black naval officer’s cap.” They described the submarine as being 250 to 300 feet long, dark gray with a 4-inch and a machine gun on deck, aerials strung from the conning tower, and the crew were considered of a dark complexion and mostly shirtless. They said the paint was “badly worn” and “grey with rusty patches,” saying “sub believed to be old craft,” and Oddly the Norwegians felt the submarine was Italian. The submarine remained in the area roughly 15 minutes before motoring off to the northwest and submerging roughly a mile away. (Heading northwest was a bluff by U-404, the sub was low on supplies after a patrol lasting 70 days, and arrived in St. Nazaire France over two weeks later, on 14 July. She was sunk on 28 July 1943 by three aircraft off the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all 51 officers and men. Von Bulow however survived the war and lived until age 94 and 2006.)

Both the port lifeboats and one starboard lifeboat were destroyed, with one starboard lifeboat, the small gig and three rafts getting clear. Out of 44 men, two had been killed by the first torpedo in the engine room, 11 were killed by the second torpedo, and Norwegian Motorman/Mechanic Johan Larsen was so badly burned that he would last just over a week in a lifeboat before expiring. That left 31 men who set off for land on five small craft, each of which were either equipped with sails (the boats) or jury-rigged them with oars (the rafts). At first all of the craft raised sail and set off to the north-northwest and the American coast, however by the second day one of the slow rafts was stripped of equipment and people and cast adrift.

On 5 July 1942 the British Admiralty sent out a general inquiry to their colleagues in Bermuda inquiring after the well-being of the Moldanger, in case the ship had called on the island en route to New York, but nothing was learned. Since 30 of the 44 men were rescued in three batches over seven weeks, it is useful to outline them thus:

·         16 men in motor boat under Capt. Hansen, at sea 11 days, rescued by HMCS Buctouche, taken to Newport RI July 8.

·         6 men in gig under Third Mate Thore Legland, at sea 20 days, rescued by USS PC-495, taken to Cape May naval section base, NJ July 16.

·         9 men on two rafts under Carpenter Olav Brekke, at sea 48 days, rescued by Norwegian M/S Washington Express, taken to New York, NY August 17

Captain Hansen’s boat, the biggest, stuck with rafts and gig at first. Then a raft was abandoned on the second day, and after three days the gig, which was not equipped with a compass, went ahead hoping to find help. This was partly because no airplanes or ships had been seen. The remaining two rafts were ultimately swept east with the strong current, unable to make headway with meager equipment. After the line connecting them broke, the gig and boat went their separate ways. After men shuffled to and from the various craft, there were 17 men in Hansen’s boat. Then, on 4 July, Larsen perished from the burns he received in the attack and he was buried at sea, leaving 16.

After an open boat voyage of 11 days the men were sighted by a convoy of Allied ships 16 miles southwest of Nantucket, almost within sight of that low-lying island. At 11 AM they were picked up by HMCS Buctouche (K-179) on the 7th of July. They reported the Moldanger’s loss to headquarters and motored for Newport, Rhode Island that afternoon, arriving shortly after midnight. It was customary naval practice to destroy Allied lifeboats with gunfire in order to remove hazards to navigation, practice gunnery, and save time. Hansen notes that the Buctouche men “extended to us the most generous consideration and hospital treatment.”

HMCS Buctouche was originally named HMCS Bathurst but was launched under the new name on 20 November, 1940 by Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Co. of Lauzon, Quebec. Commissioned on 5 June 1941 into the Royal Canadian Navy, a year later – right before meeting the Moldanger men – she was assigned the duty of Western Local Escort Force, helping protect shipping in the northeast coasts of the US and southeast coasts of Canada. Her commander was Skr. Lt. George Norval Downey, RCNR, who had only taken over the previous month.

Canadian Flower-class corvette HMCS Buctouche which rescued Captain Hansen and 15 men. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMCS_Buctouche

At the time she came upon Moldanger’s motor boat HMCS Buctouche was escorting Convoy XB-28 into Newport Rhode Island along with at least two other Canadian naval vessels. US naval authorities, in their enemy action diary, were surprised at the news, since they had no prior intelligence that the ship had been lost, writing “We have received no information of an attack on this vessel.” Buctouche arrived at Naval Operating Base Newport in company of HMS Montgomery and HMCS Regina at 1:38 AM on the 8th of July and departed with the same two naval ships as well as HMCS St. Clair at 4:45 PM the same day. The 16 Norwegians were transported to New York, where naval hearings were held a week later, on the 14th of July.

Meanwhile the six men under the third officer were at sea in their little craft on the bosom of the tempestuous Gulf Stream and then the colder waters of the Continental Shelf for nearly three weeks. They saw no ships or planes and used sweaters to protect themselves from the sun during the day and rowed to keep warm during the cold nights. Efforts to collect rain during a storm only resulted in their collecting salty water from the sail. They made it about 200 miles, to within 100 miles of the Jersey Shore when an airplane of the US Army Air Force found them southeast of Ambrose Light, which marks the approaches to New York Harbor. Shortly thereafter the US Navy Blimp K-9 arrived on scene and took over husbandry duties for the distressed sailors. The navy men dropped water and food to the Norwegians, remaining in the skies above them until the US Navy patrol craft PC-495 arrived at the gig at 6:09 PM that afternoon, the 15th of July.

Once the men were transferred to PC-495 all concerned headed for a naval section base in Cape May, New Jersey, at the mouth of the Delaware River. They arrived at 10:18 AM. The enemy action diary goes to the unusual length of adding that the six survivors “were so dehydrated and weak from prolonged exposure that a week’s rest would be necessary before they could be moved.” Interviewing officer Lt. (jg) Fox USNR recorded that the men from the ship’s gig “were in a state of semi-exhaustion dur to the prolonged exposure and lack of food and water. Their pedal extremities [feet] were swollen and showed the effects of circulatory disturbances due to long exposure. None of the survivors spoke English fluently.”

USS PC-495 in 1950 as the Thai Navy’s HTMS Sarasin (PC 1).

Source: http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/010495.htm

PC-495 was constructed by Dravo Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and launched on the final day of 1941. She displaced 280 tons, was 173’8” long, 23’ wide, and 10’10” deep. Capable of just over 20 knots and carrying up to 65 navy personnel, the vessel was armed with a 3-inch gun, three 22-milimeter guns, and both rocket and depth charge launchers. Twin 1,440 engines propelled the craft. One of her commanders, in 1942, was Lt. (jg) Manley K. Fuller, Jr.

            For the extraordinary survival saga of the seven Norwegian sailors, Danish Saloon Boy Poul Andersen and Swedish Saloon Boy Holger Aronsen, we are indebted to Dame Siri Holm-Lawson of warsailors.com for reading and sifting through copious Norwegian accounts and interviews to convey the salient events. The voyage lasted over 1,000 miles, mostly eastwards from south of Nantucket to west of the Azores, following the general axis of the Gulf Stream. They endured three heavy storms (described as cyclones, or hurricanes) and suffered most from thirst, cold nights, and the burning sun. Because of his skill at survival and ability to enforce discipline, the eight other men came to see Carpenter Olav Brekke, aged 57, as their natural leader.
            Because of their ingenuity (turning pins into fish hooks), they caught many fish to stave off hunger. Some creatures, like sharks, threatened them during their swimming exercises, but also flushed turtles towards them, and they managed to catch three amphibians of 50-60 pounds which provided life-sustaining nutrients for five days each. Holder Aronsen (aged 34) faced a dilemma, as he was a strict vegetarian. After considerable deliberations, though, and with his very survival at stake, he acquiesced and partook in the fish and turtle meat. Steward David Olai Holgersen was the oldest in the group at age 60. Whales, meanwhile, came at them during a critical point in their rescue and threatened to overturn their raft, but the massive mammals dove beneath them at the last moment.
            The rafts were two by three meters. For a week Brekke suffered from headaches from injuries received in the attack. They rigged sails to head northwest but failed. A ship-shape rotating watch of four hours each was established. The men all had either full clothing or foul weather gear to protect them, and the rafts had additional clothing. The storms they endured supplemented their water supply, which permitted them one cup each per day of the voyage. They had the usual food-type pills and tablets, but the bread, stored in tins, was ruined by water and was in insufficient quantities at any rate. The rich Gulf Stream current carried Sargasso weed under which fish sheltered. They scaled the fish with fingernails and dried the fish along with their livers for 1.5 days before eating them. They rendered turtle fat in jars in the sun until it was palatable.
            On the 28th day the men espied a ship, which continued on without seeing them. After about 36 days another ship, this one a Liberty, steamed to within a mile of them. The men were so convinced that rescue was imminent that they begged to finish off their water supply, but Brekke warned them “we’re not on board yet.” He was right. Perhaps fearing that the rafts were decoys, the ship changed course and sped off. Despite this bitter setback they kept morale up by singing, talking and fantasizing about food. Once 45 days had passed they took to drinking small bits of seawater to ease constipation, which was effective. Each man lost 55 pounds of body weight on average and wryly reported that “the barber shop was closed.”
           On August 14th – their 48th day on the rafts – the Norwegian motor ship Washington Express hauled over the horizon. At 3,643 gross tons the ship was owned by Skibs-A/S Seattle on their Fruit Express Line and operated by Biørn Biørnstad & Co., Oslo. Her master was Alf M. Bie. She had left Liverpool on August 7th and was motoring for New York via Belfast Lough independently when she came upon countrymen on the vast expanses of the Sargasso Sea. Fortunately Washington Express was carrying two physicians. The senior of the two, Dr. Trygve Gjestland was moved to tears and pride by watching all nine Norwegians climb up the rope ladder unassisted after seven weeks on rafts.
The Norwegian motor ship Washington Express, which rescued nine survivors of the Moldanger after 48 harrowing days at sea.
Source: http://warsailors.com/singleships/washingtonexpr.html, Received at warsailors.com (via Neil Carlsen) from Dag Midbøe.
            Before they could reach the men on the raft the rescuers were forced to watch the scrawny men fight off the pod of whales with oars and whistles. A line was thrown from ship to rafts and when it fell short John Bakkemyr lept into the water to cross the intervening 100 feet, despite the sharks. Luxuries like gruel, a soft-boiled egg and bread were savored, as were baths.
The Washington Express, a fruit carrier, was equipped with unused owner’s cabins, and these were made available to the castaways for the four-day passage to their original destination: New York. A day after they were rescued a mournful Captain Hansen reported the nine men “missing, probably dead,” and was elated to learn of their rescue. He and ambulances sent by the Red Cross were waiting at the dock when Washington Express arrived in New York, but the men walked off the ship unassisted and the vehicles left empty.
Dr. Trygve Gjestland in 1950. He treated some 22,000 Norwegian mariners in the UK and NY during WWII with small support teams. Source: http://archive.paulrucker.com/activism/tuskegee_experiment
             According to an (in-exhaustive) list of WWII lifeboat voyages, the Moldanger men’s 48-day survival feat would be up amongst at least the top three. Britannia’s survivors spent 26 days, Tapscott and Widdicombe of the Anglo Saxon were 70 days in a lifeboat, CPO Dixon, subject of the book The Raft, and two others were 34 days on a raft in the Pacific, Louis Zamperini, subject of Unbroken, the book and film, was 47 days in an inflatable raft, and C.O. Jennings and a companion spent 127 days in a lifeboat escaping the capture of Singapore.
In this author’s opinion, one reason the Moldanger survival story failed to reach a wider audience is that the rescuers were fellow Norwegians, and books written about or covering the episode (Handeslflåten i krig, A Merchant Seaman’s Story, De seilte for vår frihet , Utanför Spärren, Tusen norske skip, and Sjøforklaringer fra 2. Verdenskrig (warsailors.com) were mostly in Norwegian, a language with limited global readership. In fact Captain Hansen told the US Navy interrogators in Newport that he “would prefer not to talk to newspapermen,” possibly out of a sense of modesty, or out of respect for the 14 known dead and nine others believed to have perished on the rafts.
I believe that had a non-Norwegian Allied ship discovered the men, more would have been made of the incident by the propaganda-leaning US and British press, and the likelihood of books and articles about the men’s feats in English would have been quickly disseminated (indeed a note in the Moldanger’s US Navy file reads “Pertinent information given public relations officer, and Jensen, a survivor of the Potlatch’s 30-day liferaft saga went on a national speaking tour in late 1942). Rather than gaining publicity tours ashore, the much-needed and ever-skilled merchant mariners were for the most part pressed back into service, unheralded heroes, though all of them received awards from the Norwegian government. (Source of WWII survival sagas: http://progress-is-fine.blogspot.com/2013/03/astounding-feats-of-survival-at-sea.html)
Dame Siri Holm Lawson, historian of Norwegian ships during WWII, notes that the detailed medical examination of the nine Moldanger raft survivors by two doctors, as well as an analysis of their diet and equipment, enabled the Allies to improve on the equipment provided to shipwreck survivors in the lifeboats and rafts. This included more bread in better-sealed tins, more water, stricter enforcement that the mandated equipment was supplied, fishing equipment, and tools for scaling fish and cutting turtles (warsailors.com).